Choosing Hope

Published January 21, 2022

I believe with a steadfast faith that there can be never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless . . . To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that in time, the storm will pass.—Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who served as the Bishop of Johannesburg and the Archbishop of Cape Town during the oppressive years of Apartheid in South Africa, died the day after Christmas. I mourn him. When I was a teenager, I remember planting myself before the television news and scouring the newspapers to hear his wisdom and take on the government’s violent repression of black South Africans. I was blown away by how he spoke forcefully and prophetically against violence and injustice during the worst atrocities without ever shedding his loving, peaceful countenance. I would learn years later, from his conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama published in The Book of Joy, that his faith and his deep, unshakeable hope steadied him in those moments of death and despair.

This faith and hope were not theoretical for Archbishop Tutu. Bishop Peter Storey, who served alongside Tutu in leading the South African Council of Churches during Apartheid, tells of the time when the security police menaced him and Archbishop Tutu after they attempted to visit a group of detained Lutheran priests. The security police ran them down as they drove through the bush toward Johannesburg, pulling them over, yelling at them, pointing guns, and threatening to kill them. Storey says Archbishop Tutu never stopped praying. Eventually, the police released them. As Tutu was driving away, Storey could hear him praying still. Looking over at him, Storey noticed that Tutu was driving down the national road with his eyes closed. Storey grabbed the steering wheel while Tutu was praying, concluding, “I drove the car as he talked to God.” I suspect that was Archbishop Tutu’s usual comportment when confronting violence and oppression: choosing hope and talking to God.

Recently, the theologian Miguel De La Torre wrote a book lamenting the abuse of hope that invites the oppressed into inaction. Specifically, he worried about a hope that is illusory and serves to divert people from the task of resisting oppression. Real hope should not lull the vulnerable into justifying injustice and atrocities now, believing that justice awaits them in the afterlife. De La Torre posits that, without the comforting dream that it will all work out in the end, people would respond to injustice with liberating imagination and action rather than a vain, inactive hope. Tutu did not live, serve, or fight with illusory, unimaginative hope. He did not shrink from the prophetic challenge to the violence and injustice of Apartheid. He never allowed resignation and cynicism to extinguish hope. He stepped firmly into the vortex. He chose hope because he knew the storm would pass. Choose hope.

DeWayne L. Davis

King: A Disciple and a Servant

Published January 14, 2022

Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

In a new religious biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., I discovered that soon after the Montgomery bus boycott, then-President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson of Howard University fought hard to get King to be dean of Howard’s School of Religion. After the creative and inspiring way he led a campaign that went from pursuing better treatment of black riders to striking a blow against segregation, schools, churches, and large nonprofits dangled many other lucrative offers before the young minister. And yet, King felt called to stay with his congregation and in the movement. Therein lies the new insight into King from Martin Luther King: A Religious Life. In his earliest writings in school and personal letters, King saw himself as a disciple and a servant.

From his first call to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to his last sermon before his death in Memphis, King went all in, never letting up on his pursuit of discipleship and servanthood. When people doubted the efficacy of his espousal of the love ethic as the answer to the evils of hate, racism, and segregation, King backed up his inspiring rhetoric with an unwavering commitment to the principle of nonviolent resistance to the violent injustice perpetrated against Black Americans. Many of King’s detractors, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, sought to characterize King’s work as a self-serving grasp for power and notoriety. However, the truth of King’s health and finances confirms the testimonies of family, friends, and colleagues of a man wholly committed to service and self-subordination to the larger cause. And while countless, nameless unsung activists and citizens sacrificed their lives and livelihood for the cause of freedom with King, his unique voice, ministry, and nonviolent direct action convinced Black people to fight more fearlessly for their lives and white people to accept in principle, if not in practice, racial equality.

Before King became the King whose image and works have been “melted down into an image palatable to everyone and challenging to virtually no one,” he had a vision about the kind of world he wanted to see and his willingness to work for it. He wrote to his then-girlfriend, Coretta, who would become his wife, about his hope, work, and prayer for the future that he fought to make a reality throughout his public life in the struggle for Black freedom and equality. King never stop advocating for a warless world, equitable distribution of wealth, and racial equality and justice. Given who King has become in the cultural imagination, I hope we remember that his work and life echo all these many years later because he was a faithful, committed disciple and servant. On MLK Day, let’s honor King through our discipleship and service.

DeWayne L. Davis

Then What?

Published January 7, 2022

“Life . . . is a struggle . . . an experience in both gain and loss, joy and sorrow. No life consists of nothing but success and satisfaction, security and self-gratification. Failure and disappointment, loss and pain are natural parts of the human equation. Then what?” —Joan Chittister

Just as we rang in the New Year, the increase in new infections of COVID-19, including a new variant that appears to be easier to transmit, is forcing schools, churches, and theaters to cancel in-person gatherings or return to previous restrictions and protocols similar to the earliest days of the pandemic. It feels like we should be doing much better against COVID, given all of the effort and expense in addressing a global pandemic. It’s hard not to point the finger at the others whom we think aren’t doing enough or being careful enough for all of us to get back to normal. Confronted with potential exposures and infections in our community, we temporarily retreated from regular in-person gatherings.

It is unsettling to be thrown back into this place of uncertainty. I have been feeling some way about pulling back into quarantine. And just as I begin to give in to the exasperating question, “now what?” I remember Sister Joan Chittister’s meditation on the reality and acceptance that life is a struggle. Knowing that, “then what?” She invites us to search and experience the alleluia moments in life, “the awareness of another whole kind of reality—beyond the immediate, beyond the delusional, beyond the instant perception of things,” trusting in God’s presence during struggle. Just as this is a defining moment in how unsettling the times are, I have also experienced defining moments of love, joy, and gratitude that have inspired, fortified, and carried me through this time of increasingly bad news.

I pray we find our way to alleluia at this moment and resist the easy, elusive salve of normalcy or the immobilizing hopelessness that interferes with our imagination. I hope we take the long and lasting view that there are moments of revelation of love and good that helps us answer the question, “then what?” after we’ve confronted our loss and grief. There isn’t going to be normal anymore. We’ve lost too much; we remain at risk; more people will contract this disease. To overlook that reality to try to get back to some normalcy lends itself to missing out on the alleluia moments breaking through all the time. The inevitability of loss and pain should not lead us to assume that there won’t be alleluia moments in our future. There await us alleluia experiences that have the potential to endow us with a burst of new energy, a prophetic moral imagination, and a reservoir of new strength to seize the moment, drawing us closer to each other and to all that brings life. May it be so.

DeWayne L. Davis

Summing Up and Sorting It Out

Published in This Week At Plymouth, January 2, 2022
Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
“For there’s no yes in yesterday
And who knows what tomorrow brings or takes away
As long as I’m still in the game
I want to play
For laughs, for life, for love
So here’s to life
And every joy it brings
Here’s to life” —Shirley Horn
We are in that time of the year when people sum up and sort out the year they have just experienced, making New Year’s resolutions as the answer to everything that happened, good or bad. I’ve seen many people posting on social media about their year, taking stock of their grief, losses, victories, and accomplishments. The pandemic, economic setbacks, political polarization, and family discord or reconciliation figure prominently in the resolutions they are making. I can’t be sure if there has been a measurable increase in this kind of year-end reflection, but I have seen far more of them than I remember.
Nowadays, I rarely do that summing up of my year, and I can’t recall that last time I made a New Year’s resolution. I think one of the reasons I haven’t been more intentional about summing up my year is that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that what I experienced in the previous year stays with me into the new. I do welcome the natural inflection point of the New Year for starting over and beginning again. Yet, the year I’ve just experienced has made me who I am going into the New Year, and that change in me will continue to unfold in surprising ways. I lived through some of those bad years, brutal and interminable, leaving me desperate for a clean break from any and everything that happened. And yet, all of what happened remains a part of me. How do we keep what worked, learn from what didn’t, and integrate it all constructively for what tomorrow may hold?
A few days ago, a radio news segment featured therapists talking about the dismal record of people keeping their New Year’s resolutions and advising listeners to drop the customary practice of making them. Instead, one of the therapists suggested taking on the approach of articulating your intentions for the upcoming year. The idea behind stating an intention is to make the journey less formal and unforgiving, leaving room for grace, flexibility, and adjustment as life unfolds. Perhaps, carrying forth the lessons learned and the wisdom gained from the year we just had can help us better articulate intentions we are likely to honor. As we sum up, sort out, and say goodbye to 2021, I pray we embrace the New Year, not solely as a reaction against what hurt us or what we hated about the year just ended. Instead, because we are wiser, stronger, and more explicit about our intentions, we welcome the New Year as an opportunity to pursue laughs, love, and life. May it be so. Happy New Year!
DeWayne L. Davis

Showing Bigger, Better Love

Along The Way published in the December 17, This Week At Plymouth
“Birth a witness of Love that is bigger and better than we inherited . . . let us love more fully than we thought possible . . . let us stand for Love and with Love”
—Sarah Bessey, “A Prayer for the Church”
By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
I am so steeped in church life and God-talk that I sometimes forget that some people have a hard time believing what I say about God, love, and faith. Especially in the aftermath of natural disasters, like the destructive tornado that swept through six states last week, killing hundreds of people, or the year of a catastrophic global pandemic, we are awash in words—words of sorrow, words of prayer, or words of God’s love. Our message must seem incredible to those not part of a faith community during this season of Advent. In our songs, prayers, and proclamation, we assert that God loves us so much that God is sending a messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord. God loves us so much that God is sending the Promised One who will bring justice and righteousness to a broken world. I wonder if this message of love makes a difference for those suffering.
Who among us hasn’t wondered about God’s love when things don’t go right? Especially in times of our deepest pain and suffering, in our most profound disappointments in life, in all the ways that life has been less than good and joyous, our faith in the love of God can take a severe beating. In this season, in which we are to wait expectantly for God to do a new thing, our look back at the worst moments of our lives or our survey of the chaos and confusion of the present time may not convince us that God’s love and justice will prevail. Too much has gone wrong, too much has been lost, too much is still uncertain. Can and will love make a difference?
I am convinced that love can make a difference. If we loved more fully than we thought possible, if we witnessed to bigger and better love, perhaps we can inspire others to love bigger and better. Perhaps our task is not to say or sing more about love. The late bell hooks said it best, “When we love, we can let our hearts speak.” Maybe we are called to love each other so much that when God does God’s new thing, we will be ready to participate in it more fully. Maybe the love we are anticipating can be glimpsed and experienced by serving our neighbors with willing generosity, confronting domination systems that oppress people, and seeking justice for those who are oppressed and persecuted. Perhaps what we hope for can be found by awakening to a powerful love that reminds us that the world and we are worth saving. No matter what comes, let us stand for and with love.
Amen.
DeWayne L. Davis

When the Argument Is Having You

By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
Published This Week At Plymouth, November 12, 2021

“It is amazing to me that a difference of opinion upon subjects that we know nothing with certainty about, should make us hate, persecute, and despise each other . . . Arguments cannot be answered by personal abuse; there is no logic in slander, and falsehood, in the long run, defeats itself”
— Robert Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses

Before you know it, the conversation has gotten away from you—the anger within brews. You can hear yourself raising your voice, not so much because of your passion, but because the other person is raising their voice. For all involved, everything hinges on winning this test of wills. Soon, nobody can see the other, neither their fear, their pain, nor their suffering. They are an enemy to be defeated with nothing less than total victory. The “debate” has moved from a place of engagement, curiosity, and discovery of truth. You are no longer arguing; the argument has you.

The rancorous polarization on display on social media, at school board meetings, and in the laboratories of democracy revolve primarily around political and religious disagreements. Politics and religion are ripe for unpleasant, disgruntling debates because they are areas of life where fear and power have been wielded with abandon to oppress, dominate, and exploit. And yet, their significance in our lives and the varieties of ways they are practiced among diverse peoples provoke debate and discussion. There is a lot at stake if one’s safety or humanity hinges on the outcome of a political or religious debate. But, if we value freedom and equality, we have no choice but to work it out. How do we hear uncomfortable truths and potentially new wisdom without turning against each other? How do we argue about the big political and religious questions without the argument turning us into liars, abusers, or slanderers?

The way we disagree and argue is particularly important for the church. Given the church arguments down through the years over doctrine, worship, gender, and sexuality, one would think we would have learned how to disagree without hating, persecuting, and despising each other. Sadly, we have not distinguished ourselves admirably at all when confronting and managing our differences. Ironically, the biblical and theological origins of the church are founded on the teachings of Jesus, who urged his disciples to love their enemies, be reconciled to those with whom they are angry, and forego retaliation against those who harm them. And yet, too often, we allow arguments to have their way with us, tearing us apart as a nation and as a people of faith. Perhaps our task should be to spend less time preparing our arguments than preparing how to remain gentle, generous, and loving when we inevitably disagree. Whatever our disagreements, I pray the exchange leads to truth and wisdom and that all involved are fully seen, heard, and affirmed. May it be so.

DeWayne L. Davis

Fear Not

By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
Published This Week At Plymouth, November 5, 2021

“The profound love for America’s ideals should unite all who call it home, of every color—and yet America has lied to her white children for centuries, offering them songs about freedom instead of the liberation of truth” ― Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us

Another general election is in the books. The parties, pundits, and politicians are immersed in their customary post-election analysis, trying to draw wisdom from lessons learned and to discern new wisdom for better election strategies in the future. While strategists will use much of this analysis to predict what will happen in the national mid-term elections next year and to decide on which voters to target their messages, elections of 2021 confirmed the effectiveness of an old electoral strategy: stoking fears about race, schools, and crime.

Scholars maintain that the phrase “fear not” appears in the Bible 365 times. When the angels, prophets, and Jesus preface divine presence and prophecy with “fear not,” they recognize that humanity is prewired to exhibit fear and anxiety about unknown, potentially dangerous situations. But they also know that unwarranted or misapplied fear may interfere with one’s ability to hear, see, or experience something new, good, or transformative. As a Black queer man, I am not immune to seeing the world through the prism of “I am in danger.” It can be the almost ambient voice and noise stiffening my body or closing parts of myself off from the world out of fear. But, “fear not” echoes in my soul. It is the part of my faith journey that also leads me to sing, “I will trust in the Lord.” I don’t want to live in nor act out of fear.

And yet, fear works. The media reported countless stories about campaigns and citizens using demonstrably false messages about teaching critical race theory and a dystopian crime-infested world without police to frighten voters. We saw several interviews with people expressing fear of things they had not directly experienced. We are hard-pressed to discount the power of fear in the election results. I am not making a case for a particular party, candidate, or policy prescription. I am, however, inviting us to discern the difference between messages designed to stoke our fear and those that offer us the truth, good or bad, that can be the source of freedom and progress.

After the election, the journalist Dan Rather tweeted his belief that “most Americans would prefer if we were united.” I don’t know if they prefer it, but I suspect we would be more united if we were not so afraid. If we were not so afraid, perhaps we could hear about the darker periods of our past to liberate ourselves from its consequences. If we were not so afraid, maybe we could find a way to ensure public safety is an expression of the common good for all people rather than a wedge issue for powerful interests. So, fear not, and hear the good news.

DeWayne L. Davis

What Kind of People Are We?

By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis,
Published in This Week At Plymouth, October 29, 2021
“The way we use, own, acquire, and disperse material things symbolizes and expresses our attitudes and responses to ourselves, the world around us, other people, and, most of all, God… The real sin related to possessions has to do with the willful confusion of being and having” —Luke Timothy Johnson, Sharing Possessions

When I worked as a policy advisor to the Episcopal Church, the mainline denominations, the Catholic Church and its auxiliaries, and the National Council of Churches would come together for an annual joint effort calling the U.S. Congress to pass a moral budget for the nation. Specifically, we were calling on Members of Congress to use our nation’s vast wealth and resources, our great abundance, to address life and death issues like hunger, poverty, homelessness, and climate change. We lamented that the meager resources dedicated to alleviating poverty, addressing systemic injustice, and caring for the planet did not reflect the nation’s professed values to establish justice and promote the general welfare of the people. The way the nation regularly spent its resources begged us: What kind of people are we?

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offered his followers some wisdom that could help them discern what kind of people they were, especially when it came to their abundance: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21). It is an invitation to reflect on the connection between being and having. Where we invest, with whom we share, and how generous we are with our abundance communicate to the world who we are and what we value regardless of how profoundly generous our rhetoric may sound or despite whatever good intentions we may have. Unfortunately, our culture and economy place exorbitant emphasis on the symbolic value of having, leading many of us to assume that the worth of our being is found in possessing abundance more so than sharing it.

The faith of our beloved community, anchored in Jesus’ wisdom, invites us to stewardship as the antidote to any confusion between being and having. Faithful stewardship entails seeing our possessions, not merely as an accounting of what we have but as an expression of who we are as receivers and trustees of the gifts and abundance from an extravagantly generous God and what being stewards of that abundance require of us. Keeping with this focus on connecting being and having as part of faithful stewardship, the Plymouth Stewardship Committee is launching our 2022 Annual Giving Campaign with the theme, Cultivate Faith, Nurture Connection, Amplify Love. It reflects an aspirational mode of being for us as we discern our commitments and financial giving. We invite our community to commit and share their resources as part of Plymouth’s work of cultivating faith, nurturing connection, and amplifying love within, among, and beyond ourselves. I can think of no better expression of the kind of people we are and hope to be than faith, connection, and love.

DeWayne L. Davis

Preparing a Welcome Table

By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
Published This Week At Plymouth, November 19, 2021

“And so they gazed nakedly upon their own fear transferred; a fear of the black and the old, a terror of the unknown as well as of the deeply known. Some of those who saw her there on the church steps spoke words about her that were hardly fit to be heard, others held their pious peace; and some felt vague stirrings of pity, small and persistent and hazy as if she were an old collie turned out to die.”
—Alice Walker, The Welcome Table
As the nation turns its attention to observance of the Thanksgiving holiday and families and communities plan their meals and gatherings, I have found this holiday to be the time when people willingly express gratitude and hospitality. A cultural myth has risen around Thanksgiving: families debate and fight over politics, football, or the latest prodigal coming back after years away. While that has been the experience of far too many people, I have seen another side. I have seen people take seriously the practice of reflecting on what they are grateful for and opening their homes or sharing their abundance with others. Thanksgiving features familiar images and testimonies of a welcome table filled with plenty. I hope we do not take our welcome table at home or church for granted nor assume that it is as wide and inclusive as we think it is.
Speaking of the welcome table, Alice Walker authored a powerful story of the same name about an old Black woman who shows up for worship at a church to which she neither belongs as a member nor belongs based upon the color of her skin. She had done this many times before. The pastor and the ushers quickly remind her this is not her church and ask her to leave each time. Undeterred, the old Black woman takes a seat in the front pew. However, the church women would refuse to sit and worship until someone removed the old woman. The men obliged the demands of their wives and physically picked up the old lady and threw her out the back door.
I revisit this heartbreaking story from time to time, especially during Thanksgiving, to remind myself the church remains challenged by the culture and context in which it is found. The rules, beliefs, and prejudices learned in the home can be far more effective in shaping our feelings about and behavior toward the stranger than the Bible we read or the theology we profess. This story invites me to discern if my welcome is wide enough to include those who stoke within me “a terror of the unknown as well as of the deeply known.” In the name of peace, tradition, and order, it can be easy to exclude the other or withhold the blessings of service and community to some of the most vulnerable people among us. As we gather for Thanksgiving, I pray that we allow the movement of gratitude and hospitality we feel during the season to prompt us to expand our welcome table, whether in our homes or our church. May it be so.
DeWayne L. Davis

Do Not Avert your Gaze

Along the Way Published 02/12/2020
by Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

In the age of cellphones and social media, it has never been easier for people to film and capture live images of arguments, violence, and disasters occurring in real-time. From the murders of unarmed Black people by law enforcement to confrontations over wearing masks in public places to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by extremists attempting to prevent the certification of the U.S. Presidential election, we have been made witnesses to the violent underbelly of our culture, politics, and law enforcement.

While we have known that such dangers have always been present around us, thanks to viral video clips, we are no longer allowed the benefit of plausible deniability about white supremacist violence or misconduct by law enforcement. Viral video clips are revealing some inconvenient truths about us. These truths are creating discomfort and anxiety that will only grow as we see more.

But we cannot avert our gaze.

The rise of viral videos is a form of truth-telling that is not easily denied. Clips of law enforcement violence against unarmed Black people; rallies of angry mobs with cheering insults and invectives aimed at women, immigrants, and people of color; and armed white supremacists overrunning legislative houses are telling truths that shatter our myths of exceptionalism and unimpeded progress that we’ve relied on to assure us all is well.

In the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry was all about seeing and truth-telling. He did not look away, rationalize, or accommodate the poverty, injustice, and dispossession of the most vulnerable around him. He did not avert his gaze from people’s suffering at the hands of the elites and the empire. On the contrary, the Gospel writers recount stories of him stopping at the scene of suffering, directly intervening in the most tragic of circumstances, and confronting the dangers of his culture and time to serve even when it was dangerous or inconvenient. Jesus did not avert his gaze from the ugliness around him, nor did he hide from the truth about the injustice and violence oppressing the people.

I know the violence we are seeing throughout social media is unsettling and traumatizing. I do not advise seeking it out as a matter of practice. However, we should not be willfully uninformed or unmoved by what is going on.

I suspect that much of the anxiety, resentment, and uncertainty many feel about race, law enforcement, and the pace of cultural and political change arises from the loss of innocence that comes with the exposure of the extent of the hate and violence plaguing vulnerable communities. But we need more truth-telling if we are ever going to confront inequality, white supremacy, and disenfranchisement. We cannot look away from the oppression, exploitation, and domination that distort personhood and rob people of their dignity.

I know it hurts the eyes, but do not avert your gaze.

DeWayne